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Md. town accused of discriminating against Muslim group

By The Associated Press
07.08.08

WALKERSVILLE, Md. — Officials of a rural Maryland town illegally discriminated against a Muslim group by barring them from building a mosque and holding annual conventions on land zoned for farming, the property’s owner claimed in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday.

The religious bias complaint was filed not by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA but by developer David Moxley, whose family-owned companies had planned to sell the group 224 acres in Walkersville for about $6 million.

“I believe in the promise of America, and I will not allow a handful of bigots to deny that promise to these good people,” Moxley said in a statement.

Walkersville town attorney Danny O’Connor denied the allegations.

“Obviously, the town denies any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend the lawsuit,” he said in a telephone interview.

The town’s mayor, Ralph Whitmore, declined to comment and referred questions to O’Connor.

The Ahmadiyya, or Ahmadis, based in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, about 45 miles away, canceled the land purchase earlier this year after the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously to reject their request for a special exception to land-use restrictions.

In its decision, the three-member board cited a desire to preserve farmland in the town of 5,600 and fears that the thousands of people attending the group’s annual, three-day Jalsa Salana national convention would overwhelm the community’s roads and emergency services.

Moxley said the convention each June draws an average of 4,500 people. This year’s gathering, held in Harrisburg, Pa., drew nearly 10,000 to see the group’s spiritual leader on a rare U.S. visit, event coordinator Harris Zafar said.

Moxley’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, names as defendants the three members of the zoning appeals board plus Whitmore and the four town commissioners. It alleges they conspired to block the Ahmadis by adopting new land-use restrictions, including one barring places of worship on agricultural land, after the group publicly announced its plans for the site in August.

“I’ve never seen a worse example of hostility toward a religious group accomplished through the zoning process as by the town of Walkersville,” said Moxley’s lawyer, Roman P. Storzer, a Washington attorney specializing in religious land-use discrimination cases.

The 68-page, 16-count complaint cites allegedly biased comments made by the defendants, including one that Whitmore, a livestock feed store owner, made to the Associated Press in September. “Muslims are a whole different culture from us,” he said. “The situation with the Muslims is a touchy worldwide situation, so people are antsy over that.”

The complaint alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees free exercise of religion, and the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection to all.

It alleges violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, enacted in 2000 to bar land-use regulations that would discriminate against a religious organization.

The plaintiffs also allege violations of the federal Fair Housing Act, because the imam of the region’s 20-family Ahmadiyya congregation had planned to live on the property, and of the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights.

The lawsuit seeks a court order forcing the town to permit the uses sought by the Ahmadis, a declaration that the town violated civil-rights protections and payment of unspecified damages to Moxley.

The Ahmadis are not joining the lawsuit. The group announced on June 8, three days after the board’s final decision, that they would “leave the matter in the hands of God” and that participating in litigation “would be tantamount to trespass on His hallowed ground.”

However, Ahmadiyya community spokesman Syed Ahmad did not rule out the possibility of buying the site if the Moxleys win in court.

“I don’t know the answer,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press before the lawsuit was filed. “I think we have moved away in our mind from Walkersville.”

The Ahmadis believe that their first spiritual leader, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God. They regard themselves as Muslims but they have been barred from practicing their faith in Pakistan, resulting in violent clashes with hard-line Muslims.


Related

Muslim group sues N.J. town over effort to build mosque

Federal lawsuit alleges religious discrimination after decision to seize land for open space. 07.19.06

Ariz. church sues city after zoning permit denied
Lawsuit: Yuma is discriminating by enforcing zoning code that allows membership groups, theaters to locate in historic district while excluding religious groups. 06.09.08

Zoning religion: the battle over RLUIPA
By James D. McWilliams Law guarding religious buildings rarely overruled, but application may be limited. 08.09.05

RLUIPA, religious buildings & zoning

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